Friday, December 15, 2006


Oh Hanukkah, oh Hanukkah, it all starts tonight: the delicious latkes (I like to add a little zucchini, but click here for an insane variety), the spinning dreidels, eight glorious nights of light, history and celebration...what a party! And just in time, a gift to us all is the Great Hanukkah Books for Kids list from the Association of Jewish Libraries, which can be downloaded by visiting the link under "News and Announcements" on their website. I am very, very proud that my holiday title, HANUKKAH, SHMANUKKAH! (illustrated by LeUyen Pham) for ages 8 and up, has been included on this distinguished list. From a review posted on (not written by a relative, by the way):

Scroogemacher is the miserly owner of a garment sweatshop in turn-of-the-century New York City. He forces his immigrant workers to work overtime on the last night of Hanukkah, and is visited by the Rabbis of Hanukkah Past, Present, and Future. Scroogemacher is transported to the time of Judah Maccabee, in the middle of the battle to reclaim the Temple, to the crowded tenements where his workers live, and finally, to see his nephew's possible futures based on his choices.

So how did Jewish tradition hold up? The Rabbi of Hanukkah present is a female rabbi, and the text addresses Reform Judaism implicitly. Scroogemacher is outraged when, in the future, he is surrounded by Christmas decorations and music instead of his more familiar Jewish world, to which the rabbi replies, "What can I say? They have good decorations." Liberal sprinklings of Yiddish (a glossary is included) and humorous writing make this an original take on Dickens' work rather than a poor imitation. The artwork evokes a sort of Old World style that works well with the text. many other Jewish children's books make an attempt to address the inescapability of Christmas and Christianity in American society while intelligently discussing the immigrant experience (the poignant tale of Scroogemacher's wife being sent back to the Old Country because of trachoma), Reform Judaism, the widening gap between Jewish as secular cultural identity and Judaism as religion, and workers' rights?

How is (Jewish) Scroogemacher a worse influence than the greedy, stingy Christian personified by Scrooge? The important thing is that both find redemption and closer ties to their respective family and cultures. Dickens' Christmas Carol values seem based on tikkun olam, the Jewish commitment to healing the world. "Hanukkah, Shmanukkah" at least attempts to bridge the gap between the multitude of bright, colorful Christmas books for children and the lack of appropriate Jewish-themed books for older children. Starting with a universal holiday tale of redemption, it enfolds the warmth and light of Hanukkah, the power of love to transform, and the strength of Jewish tradition. A beautiful, thought-provoking read that brightened my Hanukkah.

I hope it does the same for all of you! Additionally, teachers and families be alerted, a free reader's theater script is available for download on-line, for those who would like a communal read-aloud in your home or classroom. Have fun! And in the spirit of the holiday and the grand efforts by the AJL, I'd like to share a few of my personal favorites, not that you should choose one instead of the other:

IT'S A MIRACLE: A HANUKKAH STORYBOOK by Stephanie Spinner, illustrated by Jill McElmurry (Atheneum) What a Hanukkah, with Owen Block finally old enough to be the new O.C.L…Official Candle Lighter, that is. Nothing could be a better gift for each of the eight night of Hanukkah than a story, and boy, does Grandma pull out all the stops! Whenever Grandma asks, "Ready for a story?" Owen answers, "definitely." Good choice, Owen! From the dentist's parrot who says "open up" to the class clown who stays home from school to entertain his parents, to the space alien who is reminded of his home planet by the four candles lit on the menorah to the little girl that grows up to be a rabbi, could it be that these stories are inspired by Owen's real family? Naaah! In this modern treatment of a Jewish tradition, the stylish gouchae illustrations are as generous as a plate of latkes, and the voices of each character come through loud and clear. You don't have to be Jewish to enjoy the offbeat humor here, or the appreciation of the ties that bind. Includes a brief description of the Hanukkah legend, the Hanukkah blessings and a glossary. If a miracle is, as Grandma says, "something that makes you glad to be alive," then this book counts. Definitely. (7 and up)

FOUR SIDES, EIGHT NIGHTS: A NEW SPIN ON HANUKKAH by Rebecca Tova Ben-Zvi, illustrated by Susanna Natti (Roaring Brook) For those visited by Hanukkah Harry instead of St. Nick, check out this nifty little volume that sheds a fresh new light on the holiday. While a bit tricky as a read-aloud, this is an original and exciting informational book, including a list of eight invaluable "Hanukkah Do's and Don'ts," suggestions for potato substitutions on latkes (pinto beans, hmmm!), great ideas for what to bet while playing dreidel and plenty of history throughout. A generous peppering of black-and-white spot illustrations make this book extra festive and kid-friendly, and a lovely resource for teachers as well.

A CONFUSED HANUKKAH: AN ORIGINAL STORY FROM CHELM by Jon Koons, illustrated by S. D. Schindler (Dutton) It's been a whole year since the town of Chelm celebrated Hanukkah, so can you blame them for forgetting how? In the absence of the rabbi, the questionably "wise" men send Yossel as an envoy to the next town to collect customs, but when he makes a wrong turn into the big city, he comes back with some unreliable information. Can the rabbi straighten things out when he returns? Schindler's style is perfectly matched to the story, fine-lined and full of personality. Purists may have trouble jiving this story about the mixing of holidays and the preservation of tradition with the original "Chelm" noodlehead stories, beautifully rendered by genius Issac Bashevis Singer among others (you do have Singer's Newbery-honor winning ZLATEH THE GOAT AND OTHER STORIES, don't you?) but in the end, it is a laudible attempt. A slightly modern and very funny book. (7 and up)

IN THE MONTH OF KISLEV by Nina Jaffe, illustrated by Louise August (Viking) Mendel the Peddler's children stand under the wealthy merchant Feivel's window, stealing the smell of the latkes, and Feivel expects them to pay for it! How can the rabbi solve this dispute? Children will jump at the chance to deliver justice. This classic Hanukkah story with bold, block cut illustrations is filled with the icons of the holiday and is a perfect read-aloud. In a world of have and have-nots, this is an important book to have...and the one I share every year. (5 and up)

CHANUKAH BUGS by David Carter (Little Simon) Another festive addition to your holiday collection is Chanukah Bugs by David A. Carter. Open a lift-the-flap package for each night of the eight days to to say shalom to the likes of a glowing Shammash candle bug, a Dizzy Dreidel Bug that really spins, sizzling Potato Latke Bugs, foil Golden Gelt bugs, and Menorah Bugs that outshine them all! Again, albeit not absolutely observant, it is great for introducing the symbols of Chanukah in a primary classroom, or for holiday gift-giving (makes an amusing hostess gift as well as a treat for your favorite little
shaneh yingle). You don't have to be Jewish to go bug-eyed over this book! (3 and up)

What else, what else? SAM I AM by Ilene Cooper (Scholastic, 9 and up), powerful fiction about the cross-cultural and religious pulls of the season, Eric Kimmel's HERSHEL AND THE HANUKKAH GOBLINS (Holiday House, 7 and up) is a classic and beloved story that is enjoyed by all faiths, SAMMY SPIDER'S FIRST HANUKKAH by Sylvia A. Rouss, illustrated by Katherine Janus Kahn (Kar Ben, 3 and up) teaches colors as well, and works so nicely as a puppet show...there are so many more fine books than there are nights of Hanukkah, but no matter which you choose, they are sure to light a candle in the minds and hearts of our children. What are your reading delights for the festival of lights? Please share!

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.


Admin said...

nice blog..i liked the writing.. do write some more relevant stuff on Hanukkah..

Heidi Rabinowitz said...

Esme, thanks for letting everybody know about AJL's Hanukkah book list! It was a project of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee. The folks on this Jewish children's book award committee form opinions so many, many stories, that we thought we might as well share our thoughts on books for Hanukkah. We hope others will find it useful.

-- Heidi Estrin, Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee, Association of Jewish Libraries (

Anonymous said...

My family loves LATKES, LATKES, GOOD TO EAT: A CHANUKAH STORY by Naomi Howland.

Elaine Magliaro said...

I love In the Month of Kislev. I used to show a filmstrip of the book to my students every December. I wish the book was still in print. It's a wonderful story.

Thanks for including a review of it. I was trying to remember the title the other day.

Anonymous said...

thank you! the reader's theater script is perfect for a fun lesson to end the week.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much, Esme, and especially Heidi and everyone else on the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee! This list is a fabulous resource. We own several of the books on the list, but now we'll be adding more to our shelves. It's so helpful to have a list of stories that go beyond "this is a dreidel, this is a shammas," etc. -- those are fine for preschool, but we need books for the elementary kids as well.


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